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In the FCS Huddle: Kicking off with FCS predictions

Everybody's excited that the FCS playoffs will be expanded to 24 teams in 2013.

Some are even excited the BCS will go to a four-team playoff from 2014-2025. Hah, four teams.

But in a fandom that is postseason-centric, don't forget there's so much more to a season than the big picture.

As we leave the starter's line in the FCS on the Road to Frisco, remember to embrace the journey. It's about the competition, the camaraderie, the pagentry and the rivalries, and that winning a conference championship is something special.

Only one team - like North Dakota State last season - will slip on the national crown on Jan. 5. There's a lot to be said for the other 121 FCS teams which have a lot to enjoy along the way this season.

As we anticipate Thursday night's season-opening whistles, here are some In the FCS Huddle predictions for the 2012 campaign:

- Conference champions: Big Sky, Montana State; Big South, Stony Brook; CAA: Towson (or it is James Madison because it's easy to flip-flop); Ivy: Harvard; MEAC: Bethune-Cookman; Missouri Valley: North Dakota State; NEC: Duquesne; OVC: Eastern Kentucky; Patriot: Lehigh; Pioneer: San Diego; Southern: Georgia Southern; Southland: Sam Houston State; and SWAC: Alabama State.

- After the new year, Sam Houston State will make another 200-mile trip upstate to Frisco, Texas. This time, the Bearkats will win their first FCS championship, beating Montana State in the final.

- Through the first 25 years of Walter Payton Award, only one was won by a wide receiver, Villanova's Brian Finneran in 1997. Elon senior wide receiver Aaron Mellette will double the total by winning the 26th Payton.

- New Hampshire linebacker Matt Evans will get derailed in his bid for two straight Buck Buchanan awards by Georgia Southern nose tackle Brent Russell.

- Montana will play in the best non-conference (Appalachian State) and conference (Montana State) games of the year.

- The most overlooked teams of the preseason will wind up being Bethune- Cookman, which will win the MEAC; Southern Utah, whose senior class features NFL-bound quarterback Brad Sorensen; and Weber State, which may even be underrated in its Big Sky Conference.

- Teams in the lower half of their conference preseason poll with the best chance of stealing the title are Georgetown in the Patriot League, South Dakota State in the Missouri Valley Football Conference and Yale in the Ivy League.

- The most exciting team will be Eastern Washington, with its tremendous passing offense, and a defense that tends to keep victories in doubt.

- Alabama State will build on the excitement of a new stadium by announcing its Southwestern Athletic Conference program as the next to explore a move to the FBS.

- Rhode Island will decide to join the Northeast Conference in football after all (oops, not a good start, the Rams are staying put).

- Bryant will celebrate its new Division I status with a 2,000-yard rusher, Jordan Brown.

- CAA Football will go from five to four playoff teams this season, but that number will still lead the FCS.

- The tough non-conference schedules of Central Arkansas and Stephen F. Austin will limit the Southland Conference to only one playoff team (Sam Houston State, which won't lose).

- The last unbeaten team will be Montana State (over Georgia Southern).

- The team that will regret September the most will be Northern Iowa.

- The biggest crowd of the season will be at Alabama A&M-Alabama State and the smallest will be at Sacred Heart-St. Francis (Pa.).

- Stony Brook will be the nation's highest-scoring team again (sorry, Sam Houston State).

- The nation's best coaching job will be turned in by Georgia Southern's Jeff Monken (with a nod to Penn's Al Bagnoli).

- Retiring UC Davis coach Bob Biggs will go out with a win against rival Sacramento State.

- The first-year coach whose program will have the greatest increase in wins from last season will be Fordham's Joe Moorhead, the first former Patriot League player to become a head coach at one of the institutions.

- The two teams with the longest streak of playoff appearances - New Hampshire (eight) and Appalachian State (seven) - will meet in the postseason.

- The best teams left out of the playoffs will be Delaware and Illinois State. Again. Yikes.

- Frisco will be renewed as site of the FCS championship game.

- The NCAA will expand the playoff field to 64. We're kidding.

NFL DRAFT PROSPECTS TO WATCH

Seniors who are among the top 2013 NFL Draft prospects:

Aaron Mellette, Elon, WR, 6-4, 220 - Likes to catch the tough passes, which explains his 199 receptions and 24 touchdowns over the last two years

Brad Sorensen, Southern Utah, QB, 6-5, 230 - Has pro-ready size, accuracy and decision-making skills

B.W. Webb, William & Mary, CB, 5-11, 180 - Lightning-fast defender who shuts down receivers and is a dangerous punt returner

Marquis Jackson, Portland State, DE, 6-5, 260 - Terrific size for an aggressive D-end who racks up tackles for loss

Brent Russell, Georgia Southern, NT, 6-2, 300 - Has been considered undersized for the NFL, but there's no denying his production

AROUND THE NATION

Big Sky: Eastern Washington's wide receiving trio of Nicholas Edwards, Brandon Kaufman and Greg Herd enter Thursday's much-anticipated visit to former Big Sky power Idaho with a combined 404 receptions for 5,451 yards and 56 touchdowns in their careers ... Speaking of trios, Idaho State's Mike Kramer, Northern Arizona's Jerome Souers and Cal Poly's Tim Walsh have combined on 41 years as Big Sky head coaches. The other 10 coaches have a combined 17 years of experience in the expanded conference.

Big South: Charleston Southern is hoping 13 is lucky. The Buccaneers will try to end a 12-game losing streak - the longest in the FCS - when they visit The Citadel on Saturday ... Healthier Coastal Carolina tight end David Duran has returned to the field with a sixth year of eligibility and needs only one reception Saturday against North Carolina A&T to tie former Gardner-Webb standout Josh Miller's conference record of 59 receptions for a tight end. Duran is already the conference's all-time leader for receiving yards by a tight end with 820.

CAA Football: Delaware will be ending its series with Division II West Chester after Thursday's game. Despite the schools' proximity (about 25 miles apart), the Blue Hens weren't getting much out of the series anymore with a 46-6-1 lead, including 18 straight wins. Delaware State and Bucknell will follow West Chester to Newark next month in the Blue Hens' cushy non-conference schedule ... The CAA led The Sports Network FCS Preseason All-America Team with 15 selections.

Ivy: The season kicks off for the Ancient Eight on Sept. 15. Defending champion Harvard has finished with at least seven wins in each of the last 11 years (no other school is beyond seven straight seasons) while posting the FCS's second-highest winning percentage during the 2000s.

MEAC: Ivy teams will catch up to Hampton in games played by Oct. 6 because the Pirates are playing only 10 games. After Thursday's early opener at Tennessee Tech, they will play only three more games in a 45-day stretch. At least the extra time off will let them prepare well for a particularly tough first half of the schedule.

Missouri Valley: The preseason expectations at Youngstown State would get a boost with a strong performance at Pittsburgh. The host Panthers are charged with slowing Penguins quarterback Kurt Hess, running back Jamaine Cook and the most prolific in school history, one that averaged 36.2 points and 458.6 yards per game last season.

Northeast: Wagner's trip to Florida Atlantic (1-11 last season) is its first game against an FBS opponent. It also is the NEC's only dip into the FBS pool this season ... Monmouth wouldn't mind if last year's storyline lasts for one more week while it heads to two-time defending Patriot League champion Lehigh on Saturday. The Hawks were a bizarre 5-0 on the road and 0-6 at home last season.

Ohio Valley: It's a view from the other sideline. OVC favorite Eastern Kentucky is opening the season at Purdue, whose head coach, Danny Hope, has plenty of Eastern ties. He is a former Colonels player (1977-80) and was their head coach for five years from 2003-07, going 35-22 and winning the conference title in his final season ... Ohio University transfer Kyle Snyder was injured during Southeast Missouri's preseason and will miss the remainder of the season, leaving the starting job to redshirt freshman Scott Lathrop. SEMO is the only OVC team to not return its starting quarterback.

Patriot: In a highlight game on opening night Thursday, Holy Cross hosts No. 14 New Hampshire. The visiting Wildcats must be glad they utilize five defensive backs in their base defense because Holy Cross returns three wide receivers who caught at least 40 passes last season - Gerald Mistretta, Mike Fess and Kyle Toulouse ... It will be hard for Colgate and Albany to top their opener last season - a 37-34 Colgate win in overtime.

Pioneer: Davidson's Jonathan Carkhuff and Morehead State's Zach Lewis completed more passes per game, 31.6 and 29.5, respectively, than all other FCS quarterbacks last season. Carkhuff also was No. 1 nationally in completions (348) and attempts (556).

Southern: Furman's visit to Samford on Saturday is the lone FCS conference game outside the SWAC this weekend. With both teams breaking in new quarterbacks, expect them to rely on excellent returning running games. Furman's Jerodis Williams was second in the conference in rushing yards per game last season, while Samford's Fabian Truss was third. Samford coach Pat Sullivan hopes to be on the sideline despite a recent bout with pneumonia ... Appalachian State's visit to East Carolina on Saturday falls on the five-year anniversary of the Mountaineers' 34-32 upset at No. 5 Michigan. The game still marks the highest-ranked FBS team to lose to an FCS team.

Southland: Nicholls is making the 2,650-mile trek from Thibodaux, La., to Eugene, Ore., for a likely beating at Oregon State on Saturday. It's the longest trip for an FCS program this season. Last season, Oregon State lost to an FCS program, Sacramento State ... Lamar will visit Louisiana-Lafayette on Saturday in the first game against an FBS team since the Cardinals reinstated their program in 2010. They have 12 players on their roster who originally played at FBS schools

SWAC: Alcorn State's Jay Hopson, the first white head coach in the SWAC, will kick off his Braves career against the defending conference champion Grambling State Tigers on Saturday at Independence Stadium in Shreveport, La. The other conference game is Texas Southern against Prairie View A&M at Reliant Stadium in Houston. Darrell Asberry debuts as Texas Southern's head coach.

FAVORITE OFFSEASON QUOTE

It also may qualify for the "say what?" quote of the offseason, but you have to picture James Madison coach Mickey Matthews in his southern drawl when he talked about how you can't underestimate talent on teams.

"It's not the X's and the O's, it's the Jimmy and the Joes," Matthews said.

FCS PLAYOFF PROJECTION ...

Once again this season, In the FCS Huddle is projecting the potential FCS playoff field. The projections are a long-range look at the season - not based off current records or rankings - and can be found at http://www.sportsnetwork.com/fcs/FCS_Bracket.pdf

JUST THE PICKS

Last Year's Record: 590-203 (.744)

All Times ET

Thursday, Aug. 30

Shorter at X-Campbell, 7 p.m.

Southeast Missouri at X-Central Michigan, 7 p.m.

Lock Haven at X-Fordham, 7 p.m.

No. 7 Towson at X-Kent State, 7 p.m.

Southern Virginia at X-Morehead State, 7 p.m.

Southwestern Oklahoma at X-No. 20 Stephen F. Austin, 7 p.m.

Butler at X-Western Illinois, 7 p.m.

Northern Colorado at X-Utah, 7:15 p.m.

West Chester at X-No. 15 Delaware, 7:30 p.m.

X-Southern Illinois at Eastern Illinois, 7:30 p.m.

South Carolina State at X-Georgia State, 7:30 p.m.

X-No. 14 New Hampshire at Holy Cross, 7:30 p.m.

X-McNeese State at Middle Tennessee, 7:30 p.m.

Grand View at X-Drake, 8 p.m.

Sacramento State at X-New Mexico State, 8 p.m.

South Dakota School for the Mines at X-North Dakota, 8 p.m.

Hampton at X-Tennessee Tech, 8 p.m.

Southern Utah at X-Utah State, 8 p.m.

X-St. Joseph's (Ind.) at Valparaiso, 8 p.m.

Mars Hill at X-Western Carolina, 8 p.m.

X-No. 12 Eastern Washington at Idaho, 9 p.m.

Azusa Pacific at X-UC Davis, 9 p.m.

Chadron State at X-No. 4 Montana State, 9:05 p.m.

Northern Arizona at X-Arizona State, 10:30 p.m.

Friday, Aug. 31

Villanova at X-Temple, 7 p.m.

Wagner at X-Florida Atlantic, 8 p.m.

Saturday, Sept. 1

No. 6 Appalachian State at X-East Carolina, noon

Monmouth at X-No. 16 Lehigh, 12:30 p.m.

Elon at X-North Carolina, 12:30 p.m.

Sacred Heart at X-Morgan State, 1 p.m.

Idaho State at X-Air Force, 2 p.m.

Dayton at X-No. 19 Illinois State, 2 p.m.

Brevard at X-Presbyterian, 2 p.m.

VMI at X-Delaware State, 2 p.m.

Marist at X-Bryant, 3 p.m.

William & Mary at X-Maryland, 3 p.m.

Richmond at X-Virginia, 3 p.m.

Nicholls at X-Oregon State, 3 p.m.

South Dakota at X-No. 11 Montana, 3:30 p.m.

No. 9 Northern Iowa at X-Wisconsin, 3:30 p.m.

X-Morehouse at Howard at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., 3:30 p.m.

No. 18 Eastern Kentucky at X-Purdue, 3:30 p.m.

Furman at X-Samford, 4:30 p.m.

Southern at X-New Mexico, 5 p.m.

Fayetteville State at X-North Carolina Central, 6 p.m.

Colgate at X-Albany, 6 p.m.

Murray State at X-Florida State, 6 p.m.

X-Georgetown at Davidson, 6 p.m.

Concordia (Ala.) at X-Mississippi Valley State, 6 p.m.

North Carolina A&T at X-Coastal Carolina, 6 p.m.

Jacksonville at X-No. 3 Georgia Southern, 6 p.m.

Duquesne at X-No. 8 Old Dominion, 6 p.m.

St. Francis (Pa.) at X-No. 5 James Madison, 6 p.m.

Charleston Southern at X-The Citadel, 6 p.m.

No. 13 Youngstown State at X-Pittsburgh, 6 p.m.

X-No. 10 Wofford at Gardner-Webb, 6 p.m.

Langston at X-Arkansas-Pine Bluff, 6 p.m.

Central Connecticut State at X-No. 17 Stony Brook, 6 p.m.

Virginia State at X-Norfolk State, 6 p.m.

Liberty at X-Wake Forest, 6:30 p.m.

Lamar at X-Louisiana-Lafayette, 7 p.m.

X-UT Martin at Memphis, 7 p.m.

Savannah State at X-Oklahoma State, 7 p.m.

Austin Peay at X-Western Kentucky, 7 p.m.

Southeastern Louisiana at X-Missouri, 7 p.m.

Chattanooga at X-South Florida, 7 p.m.

Florida A&M at X-Tennessee State, 7 p.m.

X-Alabama A&M at Tuskegee, 7 p.m.

Robert Morris at X-No. 2 North Dakota State, 7 p.m.

Northwestern State at X-Texas Tech, 7 p.m.

X-Grambling State at Alcorn State at Independence Stadium in Shreveport, La., 7 p.m.

No. 22 Jacksonville State at X-Arkansas, 7 p.m.

No. 24 Central Arkansas at X-Mississippi, 7 p.m.

Jackson State at X-Mississippi State, 7 p.m.

South Dakota State at X-Kansas, 7 p.m.

San Diego at X-Cal Poly, 7:05 p.m.

Missouri State at X-Kansas State, 7:10 p.m.

Texas Southern at X-Prairie View A&M at Reliant Stadium in Houston, 8 p.m.

No. 23 Indiana State at X-Indiana, 8 p.m.

Carroll (Mont.) at X-Portland State, 8:05 p.m.

Weber State at X-Fresno State, 10 p.m.

Sunday, Sept. 2

GAME OF THE WEEK: X-Bethune-Cookman vs. Alabama State at the Florida Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Fla., noon - Enjoy the ESPN spotlight because these are teams laden with talent, including Alabama State's unveiling of Georgia transfer running back Isaiah Crowell. Bethune-Cookman's rout of Prairie View A&M last year gave the MEAC a 5-2 series lead.